How to Explain War to a Six-Year-Old
Zachary Gallant is attempting to explain war to kids through a rhyming, illustrated book, à la Doctor Seuss but with more ethnic violence and Kalashnikovs.
A while back, Zachary Gallant's then six-year-old cousin asked his grandfather one of those accidentally existential questions kids often stumble upon: Pop-Pop, why is there war? The question was passed along to Gallant, who has worked in post-conflict regions for eight years. At the time of this conversation he was doing a Fulbright on redevelopment in the former Yugoslavia. So he spends a ton of time thinking about conflicts, why they happen, and how to prevent and move past them. But he suddenly realized both how often kids, even outside of wars, are exposed to images of violence and how rare and difficult it is for adults to explain violence and its complex root causes to them.
"Why there is war is a question that doesn't get answered easily or at all," Gallant told VICE. "It is impossible to answer in the paragraph a parent tries to give a kid after a question like that. And it certainly doesn't get answered in school. Or it didn't in my experience."
That conversation gave Gallant an idea: He decided to use his years of experience to create a new tool to help kids learn about war, to facilitate parental conversations about the complexities of conflicts, and to get kids to think about how to deescalate rather than perpetuate violence. And he decided that the best way to do that would be through a rhyming, illustrated book, à la Doctor Seuss but with more ethnic violence and Kalashnikovs, titled War: A Children's Book.
"One of the big places I was working in at the time was a multiethnic community in northern Serbia," says Gallant of his decision to use singsong prose to engage in one of the toughest conversations you can have with a kid.
"The way that ethnic hatred is communicated [there] is simply through stories like you would tell a child. Whether or not there's truth in it, the easiest way to transmit hate is through simplicity. And I figured there might be something to transmitting the opposite—I wouldn't say love, but a non-conflict-oriented mode of interaction—through the same kind of simple, rhyming schemes."
Gallant cracked out a draft of the book within a single night. But he's spent months fleshing it out, editing and revising the draft, with the help of an ever-growing body of dozens of collaborators—from an illustrator who worked with him in the Balkans to children's book authors and teachers and panels of friends' kids. He says he's worked hard to make sure the book takes no sides, neither condemning soldiers nor promoting conflict nor advancing pacifism, all while keeping a rhymed meter comprehensible to kids six and up.
Now Gallant and his team are raising money via Kickstarter and eventually plan to distribute the book freely to libraries, schools, and peace-building organizations. As of today, the campaign has only raised $6,283 of the $20,000 needed for a first run, with a deadline of March 3. But Gallant remains wholly confident and optimistic. He's hoping to hit a ton of flex goals: A few thousand dollars to make the book 50 percent longer so that it's not so dense and can feature more artwork. A few thousand more would translate it into Arabic, French, Russian, and Spanish. And a few thousand further to make a ten- to 15-minute short animated version of the book, accessible for free online, ideally in many languages and accompanied by an interactive app cum guide that will help mediate children's journey through his violent parable.
If all goes according to plan, Gallant wants to publish by August 2015. But he decided to release the current draft of the book's text for free last month, to help families trying to explain the Charlie Hebdo attack to their children. The manuscript is a trip to read, with lines that mash together one's childhood and modern existence in somewhat rough but very direct rhymes like:
"You see lots of things that are bound to confuse. / You hear of all these strange places, with all these strange names, / and you see all those faces, and they all look the same: / some are crying, some yelling, most covered in grime / some screaming, some frowning, and you think all the time: / That they all look the same. It's worthy saying again: / The same as your parents, the same as your friends.
"A family's home, where they've lived all their life, / Can disappear in the course of one single night. / And it's easier to fear and to blame the ones fighting, / But it's often not their fault; they're equally frightened."
And: "This isn't to say one should never step in. / There are certainly times when quarreling isn't a sin."
Reading through Gallant's manuscript, it can be a little hard to figure out how it will fly with kids. Some believe analogies are the best way to help kids comprehend the realities of conflict without understanding, say, 75 years of Israeli-Palestinian historical minutiae. Gallant does that pretty well. But there's also a good body of literature on how difficult it can be for kids at various ages to grasp abstract concepts like the ones Gallant talks about. It's also fairly important to answer kids' questions , rather than dump so much information and imagery on them that it would overload or traumatize them. That's a much harder tightrope to walk when you've got a book instead of a conversation.
Gallant believes War walks these lines fairly well. He says educators have told him the manuscript is simple but comprehensive and not fluffy. He believes kids see enough of war via media already, so it's hard to traumatize them with something like this. And ideally, he wants the book to be read by parents and children together so questions can be fielded and context added as needed, although he's not quite sure how to make that interaction happen once the book leaves his control and hits the shelves of libraries and book stores.
"The perfect balance between educating and frightening may just not exist," admits Gallant. "At the same time, I still view [it] as better than not having the resource. If the kid is still seeing war, then I feel that even if it's not a perfect exposure because it's not being done with the adult who's willing to talk to them about it—I still think it's better than not having an explanation.
"The text is always in need of ironing," continues Gallant. "And it's one of the things I'm loving about having it released for free ... People have read it and said, 'I love what you're doing, here's what I would do.' We have almost a crowd-sourcing willingness to edit the text."
Still a little torn about how the text will actually play with kids, VICE decided to send the manuscript to a few experts outside of Gallant's development team. We asked Stephen Mooser, the author of more than 60 children's books and the president of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, whether he thought the style and format of Gallant's text would resonate with kids. We also consulted James Garbarino, a professor of child psychology at Loyola University Chicago and author of Let's Talk About Living in a World with Violence , a book on understanding and coping with global conflict geared toward kids, to see whether or not he thought children would be able to digest Gallant's message without emotional heartburn.
"The rhyming is hard," says Mooser. "Not all of the lines scan and that can throw the reader off. Kids [aged six to ten] might not notice the occasional problems with the meter, but I do think you will be taxing their attention span, especially at the younger end, because of the length and the repetition... This is much too long for a traditional picture book... I think it can easily be cut in half because it is very repetitive—goes over the same history of misunderstandings and prejudices."
For his part, Garbarino told us, "I appreciate the intention, but I think as a 'book for children' it is rather weak. The language is stilted and awkward in many places.... [But kids aged six to eight] are too young for this form of expression. That's my view.
"Bottom line: To me it reads like something by an adult who does not have a lot of experience with children—their language, the way they experience feeling, and their thinking process."
So the external consensus is that Gallant has the right heart here, just not enough experience writing for kids. That seems like something the violence expert turned kid's writer would be willing to accept and internalize. He's shown his willingness to take criticism onboard and to edit. Even he's willing to admit that the book is definitely longer than he'd like it to be.
Yet he's hesitant to cut it down to fit a kid's attention span for fear of losing nuance. And therein lies the problem. Gallant is a man with a complex understanding of war trying to communicate that understanding to kids who can barely sit through a Vine, and in language that might be a bit over some of their heads. He's counting on an intermediated reading experience not every kid is going to get. He's on the right track, but he's not yet hammered out the kinks that develop when you try to take a graduate student's mind and vocabulary and meld it with Goodnight Moon .
That doesn't mean Gallant's quest is impossible. You can communicate some pretty complex geopolitical concepts to kids without them even realizing it. Think The Butter Battle Book and the Cold War arms race and mutually assured destruction (or really anything in Dr. Seuss's political oeuvre). It just takes a great deal of mastery and critique to develop something of that caliber for kids. So what Gallant probably needs right now is another round of constructive criticism—for as many writers and psychologists and kids and parents as possible to read his text and give him their thoughts. Then he might stand a chance of editing it down into the useful and revolutionary peace-building and experience-mediating kids' tool that he's envisioned.
Follow Mark Hay on Twitter.